Writing the last part of a birth story is tricky, because everyone already knows the ending.
Spoiler alert, here’s how it ends:
It’s also hard because, when this was happening I was in a certain amount of…distress? Is that the word? No. Pain? Suffering? No, none of those words are strong enough. I was in the throes of childbirth. You can’t be trusted to remember details or make decisions when you are in the throes of childbirth. Women in the throes of childbirth should not be allowed to testify. Or vote. Or talk.
Keep that in mind. These are the memories of a lunatic, a woman in the throes of childbirth.
Our drive to the hospital was very pragmatic. I had been in labor for almost four hours, but we did not speed, we did not run stop lights, we did not need a police escort. Our conversation wasn’t even frantic or emotional. Instead, it was more like: Is this where we turn for the Emergency Room entrance? Do you think we can park here? Oh, look, there’s a closer spot. Do you have all the bags?
My dad was a firefighter, and he never liked firefighter movies because they were so far from reality. For example, the actors never wore face masks because if they had face masks on they couldn’t say their lines. But real firefighters always have masks on when they’re in burning buildings. I wonder if OBGYNs feel the same way about childbirth scenes in movies. If I taught a childbirth class I would make a PowerPoint presentation with one slide that said: CHILDBIRTH IS NOTHING LIKE THE MOVIES. And that would be the end of the class. That’s all you need to know.
Tom and I walked into the hospital and the lady at the front desk is like, “How can I help you?” I wanted to laugh. It was 4 a.m., and my 40-week pregnant belly was visible from the moon. Let’s make a list of reasons why I might be at the hospital.
I was still having regular contractions that I had to pause to breathe through. But still, nothing earth-shattering. Once I got to my room they put me on the monitor (laboring moms are monitored every hour to check the baby’s heart rate and contractions) and we went over our birth plan.
If you’re not familiar with a birth plan, it’s a list of what you want or don’t want while in labor. I get the feeling “birth plans” are new; our moms didn’t have birth plans. But these days you can write your preferences, so when you’re in the throes of childbirth and the nurse isn’t sure whether you’d prefer soup or salad with dinner, she can reference your birth plan. Plus, it’s something you’ve talked to your doctor about so he knows what you want. And MOST IMPORTANTLY, it had been approved by my doctor, so my health and my preferences were not at odds. This was important to me.
The plan I used was the exact same plan I used when I gave birth to David. Here’s a summary: No medicine, no needles, please don’t talk to me about pain management.
Those things are important to me. I like to avoid any medical intervention if possible, and I don’t want the nurses to ask me if I’d like drugs every hour, because women in the throes of childbirth don’t need that sort of pressure.
My nurse was awesome. I also want to say that. She was awesome from the beginning.
After checking in, Tom and I decided to walk around to get contractions going. We had to stay on the same floor at L&D, so we did a loop of postpartum and antepartum. Over and over, pausing every four minutes or so for a contraction.
This is what happens when I have contractions:
I say, “Tom, I feel one coming.” Then Tom stops, holds my hand, reminds me to breathe, I close my eyes, and we stand there and wait for it to pass. It felt very, very good to hold on to Tom during contractions. When I had David I wanted Tom no where near me. I didn’t want him to touch me or look at me, and I really would have preferred it if he could just go wait in the car through each contraction. But this time I wanted to drape myself around his neck, bury my head in his chest and exhale through the pain.
I wasn’t in unbearable pain, but I was still in pain, and I was tired. When I felt each contraction coming, my body braced against it because PAIN! PAIN! THE PAIN! I CAN’T DO THIS! But even though that’s what popped into my head, that sort of thinking isn’t helpful. Instead, you’re supposed to think empowering thoughts, or even think of your baby. Maybe this is weird, but I never think about the baby while I’m in labor. Never.
Instead of thinking of the pain or the baby, I think of running. Did I lose you there? Let me explain. Every contraction lasts about a minute. As a runner, I know that that’s about as long as it takes to run a 400m interval. 400s are my least favorite workout. They’re exhausting, and long, but still short enough that you really have to sprint. They hurt. But one of my running mantras is, “60 seconds? I can do anything for 60 seconds.” Anything, including live through a contraction. So when the contraction begins, I imagine myself taking off at the starting line, rounding the first 100m, and that’s when the pain really starts to set in, and you get to 200m and you think you can’t do it, but you’re halfway there, so you keep going and hit 300m and THEPAINTHEPAIN but you just breathe and keep your eyes up and soon you’re sprinting to the finish line, and you’re alive; you’ve done it again! That’s what I imagine during contractions. Rounding the track, maintaining focus, making it to the finish line.
My contractions were getting worse, and I was getting really, really tired. I went to my room to be monitored, Tom went to get breakfast, and I couldn’t hold my eyes open. The contractions were painful and increasing, but when I got in bed they slowed dramatically. In fact, they slowed so much that I would actually close my eyes and fall asleep between contractions. I FELL ASLEEP. I’ve heard of naps during labor, I’ve been jealous of naps during labor, and I’ve always thought naps during labor were impossible without the aid of an epidural. Also, I never nap. I had mono in college and I didn’t even nap then. But I napped BETWEEN CONTRACTIONS. I was exhausted. Even though I knew I should be walking, I could not get out of that bed. It was almost 7 a.m. and I’d been up since midnight. This is why you have a birth plan. Because if my nurse had suggested tattooing “I WUZ HERE” across my forehead, I would have said yes, just so she let me keep my eyes closed.
This next part of the story is also why you have a birth plan. And this is the part I’ve been worried about writing, because as I mentioned earlier, I was in the throes of childbirth when this happened. Tom was not, and his reaction was much different than mine. Keeping that in mind, I’m going to try to write from Tom’s perspective.
Before I start, I want to be very clear that I love my doctor’s practice. I’ve seen several doctors in the practice and they’re all amazing. We have also had great experiences at the hospital where we delivered both of our babies with all the doctors and nurses. So, while this would not have happened if I’d given birth out in the woods, I don’t want to hear about doulas or that Rikki Lake movie. All this debate about childbirth methods? It’s a First World debate. Let’s all just be happy we have options for safe childbirth and healthy babies.
At this point it’s about 8 a.m. and I have no idea how much I’m dilated. I’m swooning in bed when a doctor I’ve never met before walks in. She takes one look at me and starts talking about Pitocin.
To me, a mom who wants to avoid medical intervention, Pitocin means it’s over. Pitocin means unnatural pain that I’ll probably have to get an epidural to survive. Plus, at this point, I’d been laboring for almost eight hours. Did I mention I was exhausted? And worse, I was dreading what was to come. This labor, I could tell, was going to be exactly like my last. After David was born I knew I couldn’t do it again, but I was buoyed by hopes that labor would never be that hard again. But labor WAS being that hard again. Even though I had my eye on the finish line, I kept thinking that, if I made it through this labor without drugs, I couldn’t do it again. It was just too hard.
When you’re having thoughts like that, you need encouragement, you don’t need Pitocin.
Then she checked me. I was a four. A FOUR. THE SAME AS LAST TIME! It couldn’t be possible. I almost started crying. No, do not give me Pitocin. Just knock me in the head and get this over with already.
Then she tells me my water hasn’t completely broken, do I want her to break it? WHAT? No, I don’t want that. I want no intervention until necessary. I want my body to do this on its own. But, WHAT? I’m a four and my water hasn’t completely broken? So this baby is coming, maybe next week?
I was upset, mostly because I was just sad and discouraged, and this doctor didn’t seem to be on my side.
Before she leaves, she tells the nurse to start a saline lock. But I didn’t want a saline lock, which was clearly stated on my birth plan. Here’s where Tom’s memory trumps mine, he’s quick to remind me that the doctor didn’t look at my birth plan. If she had, she’d know I was one of those lunatics that doesn’t want pain management. Instead, I’d prefer a good sprinkling of fairy dust and a recitation of an Irish Blessing.
She was adamant about the saline lock. And here’s the thing, I don’t have a philosophical opposition to the saline lock, I’d just rather avoid needles if I can. I don’t think that makes me crazy, I think it makes me sane. I say no, she says yes, I say no, and then add: AND MY DOCTOR SAID SO! Before I started saying things that might get me kicked out of the hospital, Tom put a pillow over my face and my nurse stood up for me. I don’t completely understand the dynamics between nurses and doctors, but from extensive viewing of Grey’s Anatomy, the doctor-nurse relationship is sort of like hierarchy in the military, and the doctor was her superior. What I’m saying is: I’m very grateful for my nurse.
When I heard I was a four, I knew I had to get out of bed and start walking. I asked the nurse to please get MY doctor (I’d already been told he was in surgery, but he might have a break to check in), and Tom and I resumed walking around the third floor.
I called my mom and cried while I told her about the encounter. Maybe it doesn’t sound bad, a doctor just suggested some medicine, right? But remember my 400m repeats? It felt like I was rounding the 300m mark and someone told me I wasn’t at 300m, in fact, I’d barely started. And then they started whispering “You can’t do this” over and over and over, and then before I know it the stadium is full of people chanting “you can’t do this, you can’t do this” and then it’s on the loud speakers, “YOU CAN’T DO THIS!!!” It should have made me mad, I should have channeled that energy and just had the baby right then and there because THAT would show her! But it didn’t, it made me sad.
It occurred to me that, if I was walking around, my doctor might not know where I am. So I went to the nurse’s station and said, “Um. How will my doctor be able to find me?”
Again, my nurse was awesome. She held my hand and said, “Amanda. I will come find you. I know you’re upset, but that was a moment. It’s over.” And that? That was exactly what I needed to hear.
Two hours of walking and contractions later I was back on the monitor and falling asleep in bed when I hear a familiar voice at the nurse’s station say, “GOOOOD MORNING!” It was my doctor! He was here! You know how, when you were a kid and you got sick at school, they’d call your mom to come get you and you’d feel better just knowing she was on her way? That’s how I felt. Rescue was on the way.
He walks in and I guess the nurse briefed him because he immediately starts making jokes about the lunacy of demanding a saline lock. Ha, ha. I’m so glad we can already look back and laugh about this now. Ha…ha.
Then I ask him about my water not being completely broken, and he’s like, LOL! And I’m like, Haha! ISN’T THIS ALL SO FUNNY??
Then he checks me. I’m an eight.
Excuse me, WHAT? Is this another joke? How did this happen? How did I get to an EIGHT? Where are the mind-bending contractions? I hadn’t even begun screaming like an animal; at no point had a nurse rushed into the room to see if there was a lion loose in my room.
Then he tells me that the baby is still very high in the birth canal, and that if I just get out of bed and get on a birthing ball or the birthing stool the baby will be there in an hour.
No way I was going to have this baby in an hour. Even though I knew he was wrong, I decided to take his advice. Getting out of bed felt very much like work at that point. And, to motivate myself, I kept thinking, “This is why it’s called labor. It’s work. I have to get to work.” I got out of bed and started doing all those things you see in natural childbirth books. I started swaying and breathing and Tom helped me sway and breathe. Every few minutes I’d be hit with a contraction, and I’d sway and breathe, then I’d sit down and rest.
This is how I knew my doctor was wrong, I was still able to rest between contractions. Sometimes for three minutes. When David was born I had six hours of contractions with no break. I was screaming and sweating and tearing the mattress off the bed for six straight hours. That’s also why labor was so hard, I didn’t get a break. When you’re running 400m intervals, the part that makes it really hard isn’t just the running, it’s the break you get between intervals. If you get a five minute break the interval is much easier than if you only get a 30-second break. And if you get no break? Well then you’re not running intervals anymore, you’re being chased by a gorilla through the jungle for six hours.
I wasn’t watching the clock, because time does not exist when you’re in labor, but suddenly I was hit with a contraction that I could not sway or breathe through and I screamed at Tom to stop touching me. Tom smiled a sweet nostalgic smile and thought, “There she is! There’s the girl I married!”
I stood up, and stiffened my body as the pain started at my abdomen and shot up through my head and down to my feet.
Then it was over, and I sat down and rested for three minutes.
Then another one hit me, and I screamed to the nurse, “How will I know when it’s time to push?” Which is a stupid question because you just know. She probably said something like that, but I didn’t hear her because break time was over and I had contraction number three, which felt like a lightning bolt of pain shooting straight through my body and that pain was wearing a name tag that said, “Hello, my name is IT’S TIME TO PUSH!”
I told my nurse I needed to push, but by that time I was only making animal noises so it came out like, “rooaraNEEDTOPUSHaaaaaaH!!”
The hospital bed was at forehead height so, while sitting on the ball, I could put my head down and rest between contractions. The nurse started to lower it so I could get in bed and she could check me, but I could not wait. I climbed up on the bed while the nurse watched, agape. After it was all over, that’s all she could talk about, how she’d never seen a woman climb up into a bed like that. And I said, “but what about a lioness? Have you seen a lioness do it?”
In my birth plan, I also requested that I give birth in a seated/squatting position. This is also very different than what they show in the movies, but it also makes a lot of sense if you understand gravity. But when my animal instincts took over, all I wanted was to lay on my side and scream and push.
Screaming. Once the screaming started it did not stop, and when the nurse pushed the call button and said, “WE NEED A DOCTOR!” The lady on the other end just heard screaming, so my nurse had to say again, “WE NEED A DOCTOR!”
Then I started to freak out because I knew THE BABY WAS COMING but there was no doctor! So I start screaming WHERE IS THE DOCTOR??? WHERE IS THE DOCTOR? GET THE DOCTOR!!!
Did I mention my nurse was amazing? The doctor arrived seconds later and she leaned down and said to me, “Amanda. The doctor is here.”
Then I went back to regular screaming.
Then a different nurse leaned over and said, “You’ve lost control. Breathe like this, ‘hoo, hoo, hoo.”
But I just ignore her and, somewhere in the pit of my stomach I smile, because I hear my nurse saying, “No, she’s a screamer. Let her scream.”
Then this part? This part I don’t know anything about because I was screaming, and my eyes were closed, but Tom says the doctor who came in was a third doctor we hadn’t seen before, and he seemed sort of hesitant. Sort of like he didn’t know where to start, even though, by now the baby’s head was crowning which means, “START HERE!! THIS IS WHERE YOU SHOULD START!!”
Tom’s memory is probably a little like my memory of the Pitocin incident. The atmosphere was, um, tense, and I’m sure he felt a little panicked, so the doctor’s actions might have seemed slower than they actually were. Either way, that’s when my doctor showed up.
To hear Tom describe it, when my doctor arrived, he sped up in a red Ferrari, tossed the keys to the other doctor, rolled up his sleeves and said “Let’s do this.”
I pushed with all my might. Pushing, for me, is the easy part. I mean, there is no easy part, but pushing is the part I can muscle through, rather than just endure. And, for me, it’s the fast part; I’ve never had to push for more than five minutes.
I pushed, and heard my doctor say, “The head is out!”
Then I let out a sigh because I knew it was over. I was done.
But I still felt pressure and pain. That couldn’t be right. Why was I still screaming?
Then my nurse, who was great, leaned down and said, “Amanda, we need you to push one more time.” I needed to push because, shoulders, have you heard of them? So I pushed and I heard a scream. For the first time in ten and a half hours, the scream wasn’t mine.
And that’s how we met.
Mary Virginia Krieger was born at 10:53 a.m., seven minutes earlier than my doctor predicted. He placed her on my chest and she was screaming and squirming and blinking at me with big, suspicious eyes, like she wasn’t totally sure she’d gotten off at the right bus stop.
Just like her mama, who got it from her Granny, Mary Virginia was born with a scowl on her face.
I held her for an hour, and stared at that sweet scowl. Sort of like how I don’t think about the baby when I’m in labor, I didn’t think about labor for a second. Not in a “I took one look at my baby and forgot the pain” way. No, I remember the pain. I’ve written over 3,500 words about the pain. But the pain and that baby? They couldn’t be more separate.
Was it easier? Yes, it was easier. And after all that worry and dread, I did it. And I’m sure I could do it again.
Looking at Mary Virginia’s face, I remembered why I wanted to have a drug-free childbirth in the first place. Because bringing a life into the world is a visceral experience, and it’s one I want to have completely, as terrible and difficult as it is. Childbirth is a big deal, which must be why people get so fired up about epidurals and doulas and Rikki Lake. It isn’t just a medical procedure, it’s much more than that, so how you decide to experience it is very personal and important.
Bringing a child into the world is unlike any experience or pain, and to compare it to running a marathon or passing a kidney stone or having a root canal is silly. You can’t compare those experiences to childbirth because childbirth is different in one huge way: you’re bringing a life into the world.
You can’t compare that to anything.